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Africa's 4G User Base Doubling Every Year — Report

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The total number of 4G users in Africa has been doubling every year since 2015 and is expected to reach 90 million by the end of 2018, according to research firm Xalam Analytics, which estimates that by 2021 there will be more 4G users than 3G users across the continent.

The research firm, in a new report titled The State of African 4G, also expects 4G user numbers across Africa to top 350 million in 2023.

On top of the strong momentum, the researchers also identified a few key issues impacting the uptake of mobile broadband access in Africa. In particular, the report highlights the imbalance in 4G coverage, which is particularly weak in sub-Saharan countries and in non-urban areas. Among the key reasons for the low 4G adoption rates, the report highlights the lack of efficient spectrum (for example, in the 800 MHz band) available to operators, and the high of spectrum licenses.

"The most cost-effective way to deploy broadband access networks can be done through two things: making digital dividend and 800 MHz spectrum available, as a matter of urgency; and removing obstacles to effective competition on terrestrial fiber infrastructure, so as to make it available to all providers on equal, commercial terms," Guy Zibi, Founder of Xalam Analytics and lead author of the report, told Connecting Africa. "We believe those two ingredients, combined with competition at the service layer, would help drive the scale you need to bring down data prices further and increase adoption. But it's fairly difficult to achieve, as things stand," noted Zibi.

By "difficult to achieve," the researchers refer not only to the change in the regulatory environment, but also the lack of profitable business cases for mobile operators. Large numbers of users may embrace 4G but the ARPU is not growing proportionate to the cost of the network, making 4G in Africa likely to follow the trap of 3G in Europe, with large user bases but disappointing operator profit margins.

When asked if the "disaggregated network" technologies championed by the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) would help drive down network costs and in turn improve business incentives to operators, Zibi agreed that "disaggregated networks would certainly help, but can really only be effective once the spectrum and terrestrial fiber conditions have been met." (See MTN Vows to Connect the Unconnected With Facebook-Inspired TIP Tech.)

— Wei Shi, Site Editor, Connecting Africa

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